Theaters in Polesine: a trip between two rivers

Antonio Carnevale

Off the beaten paths, we embark on a journey to the theaters in Polesine, a forgotten part of Italy dear to the stage gourmets.

While most theaters in Europe are closed and the workers in the sector go through the hardships of the crisis, we want to pay homage to a few little-known theaters with a dense and long history. The Italian city of Rovigo and its surroundings lay on the west side of the great Veronese valleys, a territory that runs between the Adige and the Po rivers and reaches as far as the Mediterranean Sea. We embark on a journey of rediscovery in these lands, known since the Middle Ages as Polesine, a reference to the marshy nature of the region.

We start off in the city of Rovigo itself, later reaching smaller towns with theaters often born from the initiative of private citizens who financed their construction and program. Despite their provincial position, little-known places such as Adria, Badia Polesine, Castelmassa, Lendinara and Loreo have been able to attract great names in music such as Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti and Peter Gabriel. Their architecture and interiors, seen here through the lens of photographer Giovanni Hänninen, represent an opportunity to refresh the memory of the work of unjustly forgotten artisans, architects and painters.

Rovigo, Teatro Sociale
Rovigo, Teatro Sociale ©Giovanni Hänninen

Theaters in Polesine: Teatro Sociale del Polesine in Rovigo

The epicenter of our itinerary is Rovigo, where at the beginning of the 19th century a group of music lovers decided to raise funds for the construction of a large theater. They commissioned the project to the architect Sante Baseggio, author of the building for the Accademia dei Concordi in the same city. The theater opened to the public on March 3, 1819, but its golden age was at the end of the century with the presentation of Pagliacci by Leoncavallo, Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni, Manon Lescaut by Puccini, Othello by Verdi.

teatri del Polesine - Rovigo, Teatro Sociale
Rovigo, Teatro Sociale ©Giovanni Hänninen

The untamable fire of 1902 destroyed the theater: in a single night the flames ate up the building, sparing only the external walls and facade. The reconstruction took two years, and the theater returned to life with a performance of Iris by Mascagni in the presence of the composer. Other important debuts would follow, such as that of Beniamino Gigli in 1944, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda with libretto by Paduan Arrigo Boito; and again, in the same year, Renata Tebaldi in Mefistofile, a work written and composed by Boito himself. Yet the most important milestones in the history of this theater remain the performance of Maria Callas in the role of Aida in 1948, and Luciano Pavarotti in 1962 in the role of the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto.

Rovigo, Teatro Sociale
Rovigo, Teatro Sociale ©Giovanni Hänninen

Theaters in Polesine: Teatro di Adria

Eastward is the town of Adria and its theater, whose name changes reflect three different historical periods in Italy: “Littorio” during fascism, “Teatro del Popolo” in post-war time, and finally its current name of “Comunale”. Archeological findings such as ancient masks show that Adria’s first theater dates back at least to the Romans.

teatri del Polesine - Adria Theater
Adria Theater ©Giovanni Hänninen

Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofile, directed by Tullio Serafin, inaugurated the Littorio on September 24, 1935. Among the performers was Adrian Rosetta Pampanini, Tancredi Pasero and young Giulietta Simionato at the beginning of a career which would later see her performing on the most important opera stages. Already three years earlier, on September 4, 1932, Beniamino Gigli, Maria Caniglia and Margherita Carosio performed for charity on the proscenium of a theater still to be finished. A plaque still reminds how Gigli took part in various performances pro bono. The first concert of English rock musician Peter Gabriel in Italy, on April 6, 1972 took place here, with only a few hundreds of people attending: from an unknown band in the province to a worldwide phenomenon.

teatri del Polesine - Adria Theater
Adria Theater ©Giovanni Hänninen

Theaters in Polesine: Teatro Zago in Loreo

Continuing east towards the Po Delta is the town of Loreo, in which a small theater called Zago was built in an old deconsecrated church. The renovation work of the church and the reconversion to a theater building were signed by architect Guglielmo Zangirolami in the late 19th century. In 1919, its interior was decorated by Gino Albini with musical allegories and portraits of composers. The liberty style facade, which the theater still retains today, also dates back to that renovation. After years of neglect, the Municipality of Loreo is finally recovering the building.

Teatri del Polesine, The Zago Theater in Loreo
The Zago Theater in Loreo ©Giovanni Hänninen

Teatro Ballarin di Lendinara

Moving west from Rovigo is Lendinara, a small town with real art gems. For example, the Sanctuary of the Beata Vergine del Pilastrello with its frescoes and a canvas by Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto; the Duomo, with important 16th century paintings such as the Madonna with Child by Domenico Mancini; the church of San Biagio, dating back to the 13th century although remodelled in the 19th century; the15th century churches of San Francesco and Santa Maria and Sant’Anna and the 16th century Church of San Giuseppe, with paintings by the workshop of Federico Zuccari. The ancient Granazzo Estense (a former fodder warehouse) was bought in the 19th century by Girolamo Ballarin and Giovanni Maria Bertazzi, two citizens who decided to transform it into a theater and commissioned the architect Antonio Foschini with the works. The pictorial decorations are by Giuseppe Tadolini from Bologna, a pupil of Pelagio Pelagi, who was also the author of the painting Giudizio di Paride on the theatre curtain.

Teatri del Polesine, The Ballarin Theater of Lendinara
The Ballarin Theater of Lendinara ©Giovanni Hänninen

The inauguration took place on September 3, 1814 with L’amor Marinaro directed by Giuseppe Cappellini and with scenography by Tadolini. Teatro Ballarin was enlarged and transformed in the early 20th century, based on a design by the architect Lorenzo Colliva and enriched with new decorations in a liberty-floral style. Sadly, the theater shared the fate of many others in the area: the end of the great performances, the transformation into movie theater, and finally closure. After decades of neglect, Teatro Ballarin was rescued in 2005 with a restoration process that would return it to its community.

Theaters in Polesine: Teatro Sociale in Badia Polesine

Further west from Lendinara is Badia Polesine, almost at the edge of the Adige river. The city is marked by gothic and neo-gothic historical buildings such as the covered market, as well as many palaces from the 16th century and a park dedicated to Bruno Munari. Teatro Sociale in this small town opened in 1813, but its activity lasted less than 100 years. Almost at the turn of the century, the economic crisis forces its closure and its premises were transformed into furniture storage. The authorities even decided to demolish it in 1944 but WWII blocked the project. The theatre remained silent and empty for decades until renovation started at the end of the 1960s when public funding made it possible to bring the building up to standards. The final stage of the restoration is a recent achievement made possible by private banks and foundations (Cassa di Risparmio di Padova and the Rovigo Foundation). The recovery has not only brought back a historic theater to the region, but has also preserved the original stage machines, which are still functioning today and are witnesses to a tormented history.

teatri del Polesine - Badia Polesine, Teatro Sociale
Badia Polesine, Teatro Sociale ©Giovanni Hänninen

The theater of Badia Polesine is also called “Piccola Fenice” as a reference to the more famous La Fenice theater in Venice, or the Golden Box due to its decorations and paintings by Francesco Bagnara and Sebastiano Santi. Especially the latter is a great rediscovery of 19th century Italian art. Together with Bagnara, he was active as a theatre painter in the most important cities of the Veneto region such as at Teatro Accademico in Bassano del Grappa, Teatro San Benedetto in Venice, Teatro Sociale in Belluno, Filarmonico and Teatro Nuovo in Verona. Santi worked with Tranquillo Orsi and Francesco Hayez also for Teatro Sociale in Mantua and Este, as well as Teatro Fenice in Venice. He collaborated with Giuseppe Borsato for Teatro Sociale in Udine and Teatro Apollo in Venice. Sebastiano Santi’s activity as a fresco painter should also be re-evaluated, especially his well preserved works in the church of San Luca Evangelista in Venice, which he also restored in 1832 after the collapse of 1927, and the church of San Geremia also in Venice.

teatri del Polesine -Badia Polesine, Teatro Sociale
Badia Polesine, Teatro Sociale ©Giovanni Hänninen

Teatro Cotogni in Castelmassa

Just over 30 kilometers from Lendinara, the town of Castelmassa is the last stop in our itinerary. The theater owes its name to the baritone Antonio Cotogni, who was on stage here for the inauguration on August 23, 1884 in Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia. His performance was apparently so great that the Municipality decided to give him official citizenship. Characterised by a large loggia, the original plan included a large foyer also used as a library. Teatro Cotogni was transformed into a cinema later on and was damaged in the 2012 earthquake. On the brink of closure, the theater has recently been fully restored into its original form.

The Cotogni Theater of Castelmassa:Teatri del Polesine
The Cotogni Theater of Castelmassa during the restoration ©Giovanni Hänninen

The large number of theaters of Polesine is anything but new. Until a few decades ago, almost 50 of them were active, including some in lost villages with just a handful of inhabitants. Today many of them only exist in archives and books. For example, Teatri nel Veneto, edited by Franco Mancini, Maria Teresa Muraro and Elena Povoledo, is a real source of information which inspired much of this article. In that vanished multitude, made up of small places for performance and music, the Teatri Sociali of Rovigo, Adria, Badia Polesine, Castelmassa, Lendinara and Loreo are the only survivors, albeit temporarily closed due to the pandemic. They will also be the protagonists, with their history and documents, of an exhibition scheduled from March 13 to June 27 at Palazzo Roncale in Rovigo. We hope they will be able to raise their curtains again by then, along with all the other theaters of Europe.

January 28, 2021